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  • European, National, and (Anti-)ImperialThe Formation of Academic Oriental Studies in Late Tsarist and Early Soviet Russia
  • Vera Tolz (bio)

This article focuses on the circulation of knowledge within the discipline of Oriental Studies in Russia and in Europe from the 1880s to the late 1920s. In this period, two processes, closely intertwined but vectored in opposite directions, shaped the nature of science and scholarship. These processes were nationalization ("the emergence of the nation as the structuring unit and the principal arena of scientific activity") and internationalization (increased international cooperation as well as competition among scholars from different countries). 1 Even though Russian Oriental Studies as an established academic discipline dates back to 1804, it was only in the 1880s that a community of Orientalist 2 scholars sharing a common identity and partaking in a clearly defined program of study emerged in Russia. 3 The period from the 1880s [End Page 53] to the 1920s was the time when the discipline in Russia boasted the greatest names, particularly Baron Viktor Rozen (1849–1908) and a group of his disciples, including Vasilii Bartol´d (1869–1930), Nikolai Marr (1864–1934), and Sergei Ol´denburg (1863–1934). 4 Within the Russian academic community, Oriental Studies was perceived in that period as the strongest discipline, which, on a par with Russian Studies, was most widely recognized internationally. 5 Furthermore, the above-mentioned Orientalists believed that their discipline was central to the key questions facing Russia at the time. According to Bartol´d, "[t]he fulfillment by Russians of their historic missions in the West and in the East is closely linked to the situation of Russian scholarship." 6 In his view, "[m]aybe modest works by Russian Orientalists more than other achievements of Russian culture will contribute to the peaceful unification of the peoples of the East with Russia." 7 These scholars agreed that "the prestige and immediate interests" of Russia required Russian scholars to be in the lead internationally in the study of various nationalities populating the Russian empire. 8 Thus, in the eyes of these scholars, their work was explicitly linked to the management of the nationality question in Russia, to the search for Russian national identity, and to Russia's imperial ambitions. 9

These positions of Russian scholars and, in many ways, the development of Russian Oriental Studies in the period under review reflect general contemporary trends in European scholarship. Since the 19th century, this scholarship had been shaped by several forces. First, the roots of a rapid development of various branches of the humanities are to be found in a "larger positivist enterprise [of the Enlightenment] that sought empirically verifiable information [End Page 54] about all societies everywhere." 10 In terms of methods used to extract and process this information the pride of place belonged to those developed by classical philologists. Second, the ideology of nationalism assigned special importance to the study of scholars' own societies within their contemporary boundaries. Belief in the division of the world above all into nations placed nationality at the center of historical, archaeological, philological, and ethnographic research. 11 Simultaneously, (nation-)states became increasingly involved in funding and setting agendas for scientists and scholars. 12 Finally, imperialism, another important political force with its own ideologies, also had an impact on various humanities disciplines, especially Oriental Studies. 13

This article discusses how the interaction among these pan-European processes played out in the case of Russian Oriental Studies. It starts by showing how modern Russian Oriental Studies took shape as an academic discipline under the impact of the debate in Russia about national identity. It then discusses the impact of the pan-European processes of nationalization and internationalization on Russian Oriental Studies by focusing on the role of Rozen and his disciples. It further demonstrates how the imperialist discourse promoted at international congresses of Orientalists was subverted by scholars' attempts to incorporate the Orient into Russian identity and how the belief in pan-European methods of scholarship co-existed with the criticism of some of the approaches of European scholars, leading to claims about the moral superiority of Russian scholarship. It will be shown that in the course of World War I, this criticism...


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